Mattel has a device to soothe babies. Experts are begging the company not to sell it.
Children's health and privacy advocates are petitioning toy giant Mattel not to release a kid-focused smart hub called Aristotle, which they argue gives an unprecedented look into the personal lives of children.
The device can switch on a night light if it hears a baby crying to soothe the child. Once a child is past the night-light phase of life, the smart hub is designed to keep changing its activities, even to the point where it can help a preteen with homework. And the device is learning about the child along the way.
Objections to Aristotle are twofold, say physicians and child advocates. For one, the existence of a home hub for kids raises questions about data privacy for a vulnerable population. It also triggers broader concerns about how quickly companies are marketing products to parents without understanding how technology could affect early childhood development.
The issue has drawn attention from Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who sent Mattel a letter last week asking the toymaker for more information on how it will store and retain data it collects on children. Mattel has said it will protect the Aristotle data with high-level encryption and will not sell that information to advertisers - in compliance with children's data privacy laws.
While exhausted parents may welcome Aristotle's help, they should remember that it's no substitute for their presence, experts say. "My main concerns about this technology - apart from the privacy concerns that [Markey and Barton] are trying to address - is the idea that a piece of technology becomes the most responsive household member to a crying child, a child who wants to learn, or a child's play ideas," said pediatrician Jennifer Radesky, who wrote the American Association of Pediatrics' 2016 media guidelines for children 0-6 years of age. (Radesky is not involved with the campaign to persuade Mattel to stop Aristotle sales.)
Mattel did not respond to a request for comment on the device and its implications.
Aristotle is just one of many products firms are offering to make the parenting world more high-tech. Kid-focused tablets and apps have been around for years, and parents have made their own decisions about the proper place for technology in their children's lives. But devices are increasingly moving into areas that are far more personal - or more intrusive. There are smart cradles that can rock your baby for you. There's a smart cushion to calm colicky infants by cradling them while playing a recording that mimics a parent's heartbeat.
Experts say little is known about the effects of tech devices on early childhood development, and it will take time to figure that out. But child privacy and child development experts are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with where the tech is heading.
Last year, Mattel faced pushback from those worried about the surveillance possibilities of "Hello Barbie," a talking version of the classic doll that learns about its human playmates by recording their voices over time via WiFi. Through play sessions, the doll learns facts such as the name of the family dog. It then incorporates this information into conversation. The thought that a doll would be slowly collecting information on a child alarmed many privacy advocates who labeled the toy "creepy." The product didn't sell well at launch after poor reviews, many of which mentioned the privacy concerns.
Now several privacy advocates and physicians, organized by nonprofit groups the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Story of Stuff Project, have signed a petition asking Mattel not to release Aristotle, which is set to hit stores next year. "Young children should not be guinea pigs for AI experiments. Please put the well-being of children first and end the production of Aristotle," the petition reads. It has 15,000 signatures.
"For us, to use children in an experiment when you don't know is really, really concerning," said Josh Golin, executive director for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.